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WASHINGTON — The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. is floating a trial balloon to the much smaller Composites Fabricators Association, asking if it wants ``stronger ties'' with the SPI-run Composites Institute.

What the talks might lead to, and even what SPI means by ``stronger ties,'' is an open question, an SPI spokeswoman said. CFA, for its part, said it is open to talking.

The move comes as CI and CFA have been unable to agree in unrelated discussions on whether to hold a joint trade show, and SPI and the American Plastics Council are in their own merger talks. (See related story on Page 25.) A board member of both CI and SPI, John Tickle, president of Morrison Molded Fiber Glass Co. in Bristol, Va., cautioned that a stumbling block in any CI-CFA effort may be an inaccurate perception on the part of CFA members that SPI is dominated by materials suppliers.

The SPI board told its staff at its late January meeting to ask CFA if it is interested in a closer relationship, but CFA Executive Director Missy Henriksen said SPI has not come forward with a specific proposal. A CI official left a short message on Henriksen's voice mail but did not offer details, she said Feb. 19.

``We would be happy to explore any avenues,'' Henriksen said. ``We're receptive.''

SPI spokeswoman Jennifer Dills said the idea is at a ``preliminary stage'' and said the SPI board was simply asking the question: ``We've got two groups here. How can we make them work better?''

Those ``stronger ties'' could range from staff collaboration to merging the two groups, she said: ``I don't think we know what it means. We're seeing where we could go, if anywhere.''

SPI's staff plans to report back to the board at its May meeting, Dills said.

CFA has about 700 members, including 550 fabricators, and an annual budget of $1.7 million. CI has about 400 members and is one of the larger units of SPI, but Dills did not have budget figures.

CFA considers its mission to be training and education for fabricators, while CI is more focused on market development, Henriksen said. Dills said CI's mission includes market development. CI Executive Director Catherine Randazzo was on vacation and could not be reached.

CFA last month rejected a CI proposal for joint trade shows for three years and sent a letter telling CI ``some good can come'' from a one-year deal, she said.

CFA's trade show has grown 40 percent in the last two years, Henriksen said.

She said CFA is involved in unrelated talks about further partnerships with the International Cast Polymer Association, and boards of both organizations will decide in April if talks should continue.

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